Posted on Wednesday 17th July 2013
Admissions Tutor, John Fagg, suggests five ways to think about American and Canadian Studies this summer:
1. Visit an outstanding exhibition
From now until 17 September 2013 the British Library hosts a major exhibition, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, featuring political and public information images from around the world. There are lots of interesting North American examples on show including the Cold War “Duck and Cover” campaign and James Montgomery Flagg’s “I Want You” First World War recruitment poster.
Flagg was a famous illustrator who created covers for Life magazine and adverts for cigarettes and other products and you might compare his American commercial style with other forms of propaganda such as Soviet constructivism and socialist realism.
The exhibition also raises questions about the aesthetic value of words and images created to communicate specific messages. Many of the propaganda works on show at the British Library are striking, beautiful and complex, but does their political purpose - like the commercial function of advertising images - affect the ways in which we see them?
2. Keep up with the news
You might follow the unfolding case of Edward Snowden, the American citizen seeking asylum after leaking top secret US documents related to American electronic surveillance; or take a look at Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney’s documentary, We Steal Secrets(which opened 12 July in the UK), about Wikileaks, Julian Assange, and the case of Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of the leak of US state department; or investigate the US diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks [http://www.cablegatesearch.net/].
These current events raise important questions about the role and the reach of the US government; about the balance between citizens’ rights (to information, from surveillance) and citizens’ security; and about the status of those – whistleblowers or spies, patriots or traitors? – who speak out when they perceive that lines have been crossed.
3. Read a masterwork
Richard Ford's latest novel Canada is now available in paperback. Ford read from and discussed the novel on the BBC’s Culture Show last year; writing in the New York Times novelist Andre Dubus III called it 'an examination of the redemptive power of articulated memory … a masterwork by one of our finest writers working at the top of his form.'
The novel explores 'outlaw' life on both sides of the US/Canada border in the 1950s through the eyes of a teenage protagonist and his twin sister whose apparently ordinary parents decide to rob a bank. At the same time it takes on ‘big ideas’ including Cold War politics, post-war re-adjustment to civilian life and 'crises in masculinity', immigration, and differences in social and cultural attitudes across the border.
As a discipline, American and Canadian Studies encourages us to think about the relationship between the style and form of a novel and the social and political contexts in which it is set. Ford’s Canada provides a fascinating opportunity to explore this approach.
4. Download an interactive app
Elliott Bristow’s multi-media Road Dreams: An American Adventure is now available on iTunes. This book uses material from Bristow's Super 8 film diary of his 14 year, 500,000 mile road trip around America between 1968 and 1982. These images certainly create a sense of nostalgia – but what do they make us nostalgic for? What is the enduring appeal of the American landscape and the American road? Why do neon-lit motels and gas stations on deserted highways have such a powerful hold over the (European) imagination?
5. Draw the curtains and watch some TV
If you’re not hooked already, you could take advantage of Netflix free first month and (by watching about four episodes a day) catch up on AMC’s Breaking Bad. Following HBO’s Sopranos the made-for-cable, box set and now online/streaming business model has facilitated a renaissance in American television series created outside the demands of the ratings/advertising economy.
Show-runners like Vince Gilligan are able to explore long story arcs, complex (and often unlikeable) characters, and difficult, ambiguous themes. Breaking Bad is both crime drama and black comedy, but also a compelling, deeply moral, study of some of the most divisive issues in American politics: the cost of healthcare; the war on drugs; the traffic in drugs, guns and people across the border with Mexico.
Is there a tension between entertainment and social critique – and if so, how do shows like Breaking Bad or The Wire negotiate it? What does the often-dismissed medium of the TV series do that films or novels cannot? How have new ways of accessing media altered production and reception?